Kurt Cobain would have been 46 today. Do you remember where you were when you found out he’d killed himself? I was in high school art class, likely making some awful riot grrl-inspired art. I liked Nirvana, but at that point considered myself a little too cool to get super into them. They were soooo commercial, after all. And I fancied myself some kind of indie rock/riot grrl/zine-writing nightmare.
But fan or not, for those of us that exist in that murky era — not Generation X and not Generation Y — Cobain is and always will be a powerful arbiter of youthful dissent.
Struggling to straddle the grimy subculture of Northwestern punk aesthetics and the shiny lure of mainstream pop success ended up being (at least part of) his downfall. But the ascent of Nirvana marked a definite sea change in not just music culture, but culture-culture. Rock has always been a place for rebellion, but never with such a dystopian bent.
What’s fascinating about Cobain, too, is that he often identified with marginalized groups, eschewing the mega-masculine rock star persona that had up until then been so prevalent. As Courtney Alexander notes, “In his lyrics and journals, Cobain often identified himself with women, racial and gender minorities because he felt alienated from the cultural expectation of masculinity.” Cobain’s rather public feud with Guns ‘n’ Roses singer Axl Rose confronted this head on. In a 1994 interview he said, “I have nothing against heavy metal, except that some of it is pretty sexist,” which is like, “duh” now, but at the time was a rather progressive thing to say. The feud culminated with Rose calling Courtney Love a “bitch,” and Cobain telling fans that they couldn’t like Nirvana and support Guns ‘n’ Roses at the same time. “Those people are total sexist jerks, and the reason we’re playing this show is to fight homophobia in a real small way,” he told a crowd at a pro-gay rights benefit show. “[Axl Rose] is a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and be on our side. I’m sorry that I have to divide this up like this, but it’s something you can’t ignore.”
Whether it was through his lyrics, or his public appearances, or through simply donning a dress for a show, Cobain offered a new archetype: that of a thoughtful, progressive rock star, aware of the multitude of privileges that his white maleness and fame brought him. “I would like to get rid of the homophobes, sexists, and racists in our audience. I know they’re out there and it really bothers me,” he said. Later, he made a special request: “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favour for us… Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” In fact, said Cobain once, “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes. ”
Cobain also spoke out on rape: “Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on earth and it happens every few minutes,” he said. “The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.” Cobain wrote several songs, including “Rape Me” and “Polly,” that directly addressed rape.
But maybe because he somehow knew the future was a place without him in it, he once scrawled, “I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll.”
And so while we’re sad that a talented musician and groundbreaking artist chose to take his life so soon, we’re also in mourning for the awesome progressive voice that was lost, too.